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Artfully curated by Culturadar


May 3, 2013

The Great Comet lands in the Meatpacking District:

The new “electro-pop opera” Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, based on a portion of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, opened at Ars Nova last fall to rave reviews and appeared on many 2012 theater top ten lists. Lucky for audiences, it has reopened for a limited summer run at Kazino, a new club in the Meatpacking District designed specifically for the show. Culturadar blogger Shoshana Greenberg spoke with the composer and writer Dave Malloy (Three Pianos, Beowulf – A Thousand Years of Baggage) about his connection to Russian culture, the show’s move to Kazino, and performing in his own work—he also plays Pierre.
Culturadar:  What is your background with Russia and Russian literature and culture?
Dave Malloy: I'm half Latvian, so I grew up with a lot of near-Slavic traditions, and as a piano student Rachmaninov was an early favorite. Then I found my way into Russian literature first through Gogol and Dostoevsky, then Chekov and Tolstoy. While researching this piece and another one about Rasputin (Beardo), I travelled to St. Petersburg, Moscow and Suzdal, and fell in love with the country.
CR: You play Pierre in the show, and you perform in much of your work. What do you think performing in your own work brings to the process of creating it?
DM: A lot of stress. It is a lot to deal with at times, but I enjoy performing as a musician/singer immensely. I feel that being inside of it allows me to put my personal musical stamp on it, both in terms of vocal style and piano playing. And emotionally I connect to this story, Pierre in particular, in a very strong way, which is why I wrote it in the first place. It's a gift to be able to live that every night. Also, the part of Pierre is unusual in that he really isn't in the show much until the last 30 minutes. Keeping his presence felt in the room throughout is important, and being the composer brings an added meta-theatrical element to that part of his character.
CR: How do you think Kazino will change the audience's experience of the show?
DM: It's pretty wild. It's this giant tent in the middle of the Meatpacking District. Rachel Chavkin (the director) and I talked a lot in the early days about how this was a story about people living in luxury and decadence while war is marching towards the door, sort of a last wild night before the city is sacked and lit on fire. Design-wise we always wanted to have this sort of hidden away, bunker feel, and now we have this amazing new space in the middle of an amazing neighborhood. It's kind of a space that has no business being there. The experience of seeing it for the first time, stepping into it through a chain link fence under the Highline and seeing what's inside it is pretty remarkable.
CR: How was Kazino created specifically for the show? What will Kazino enhance in the show?
DM: We explored a lot of options while looking for a space for the transfer. The show is staged immersively in a Russian supper club, so traditional theatre spaces were not right for us. And in looking at existing nightclub and restaurant spaces, we kept running into architectural problems—mostly columns in inconvenient places, plus, we of course still need dressing rooms, a kitchen, box office, etc.—and the permits are more complicated in a permanent space. Eventually we decided the best option was to custom build a space that would have exactly what we need. Our set designer, Mimi Lien, was incredible in this process, and basically designed a whole building for us. The biggest change is that we now a have a full kitchen and waitstaff, so the food and drink portion of the evening is far more extensive than it was at Ars Nova.
CR: Did the production at Ars Nova make you want to change anything for this run?
DM: Ars Nova gave us an amazing development process—two two-week workshops over the course of a year and half—so actually by the time we opened I felt pretty good about things. We've tightened some things for the remount, fleshed out some characters a bit and rewritten one song to give Natasha more of a centerpiece aria, but for the most part the piece has not changed too much.
CR: When you were conceiving and writing the show, did you picture it in a theater or in a night club venue?
DM: The show was always conceived of as taking place in a Russian supper club with no stage. Some of my favorite nights of theater and music have been in crowded living rooms, artist lofts, Irish music bars, junkyards, places where there is no real architectural division between the audience and the performers. I love the experience of being inside a piece, of feeling like everyone in the room is sharing the same moment.

For ticket information, click here.

Shoshana Greenberg writes musicals, plays, and prose. Her musicals include Lightning Man (Ars Nova ANT Fest), Sophia Venetia Voyager, and Soon Never, and her work has been featured in concerts at Lincoln Center, The York Theatre Company, the Duplex Cabaret Theater, the TriArts Sharon Playhouse, the Goodspeed Opera House, and The Laurie Beechman Theatre. She earned her MFA from NYU’s Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program after graduating from Barnard College. She also blogs about theater for The Huffington Post.

Posted at 12:09 AM